What Does it Mean to ‘Vote Your Conscience’?

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Source: LA Times Politics Twitter

I don’t typically write about politics.  I would, however, like to dedicate a post to a phrase which I’ve heard quite a few times over the past month.

As we approach a presidential election featuring two historically unpopular candidates, a common refrain has emerged: ‘vote your conscience.’ It has been used by those who identify as true conservatives and those who identify as true progressives.  It has been used by those who are tired of a two-party hegemony to explain why they’re thinking of voting for a third or fourth party candidate. It’s been used by those supporting both Hilary Clinton and Donald Trump to justify a vote for their candidates: ‘can your conscience allow four years of Clinton/Trump?’

Nowhere, however, have I seen a clear account of the concept of ‘conscience’ which is supposed to be in play here. We’re using the term as if we know what it means, but its usage in public discourse has been hazy at best, incoherent at worst. And this is important—because this, more than any election in my life time at least, looks like it might be an election decided by ‘conscience.’ When we appeal to it we should have a clear sense of what we’re talking about.

So, here’s an attempt to clarify our usage, both in terms of how it is actually being used and how its use can make sense in the light of democracy itself.  It is not an attempt to try and persuade anyone to vote for a particular candidate, nor is it an attempt to motivate a particular party base—I definitely have my own opinions, but it is now as clear as it has ever been that merely asserting beliefs isn’t going to convince anyone. This post is just an attempt to clarify a concept, and all I hope is that it is helpful in this regard.

As It’s Used

The first thing to do here is to look at how ‘conscience’ is actually being used in the public sphere. As far as I can see, the use looks something like this: to vote with your conscience means to vote for the presidential candidate whose principles you most identify with. There are variants, of course. Some have spoken of feeling dirty at the thought of voting for either Clinton or Trump, suggesting that there is a question of self-evaluation involved.  We don’t just vote for the candidate whose principles we most identify with as an end in itself, then; we do so because we believe we shouldn’t have to feel the ‘shame’ of compromising ourselves by voting for someone whose principles we do not share.

I’ve also seen appeals to conscience over fear, to conscience over the coercion of voting for one of two parties when you can vote for others, and even to conscience over scruples (for example, even if you think a vote for Stein will lead to a Trump presidency, and even if this is the outcome you most want to avoid, you should still vote for Stein). Again, in each of these cases ‘conscience’ is a function of the agreement between the principles of the individual and the principles of a presidential candidate.

This, it seems, is how ‘conscience’ is actually being conceptualised in the current political situation. And it carries with it a specific account of how the moral framework of democracy is structured—a democracy should be a matter of individuals casting their votes for the individuals who most approximate their own principles. Democracy is, in this sense, therefore a function of self-interest and self-assertion: a democratic vote is a vote for the assertion of the principles to which you subscribe (this is certainly the usage seized on by Caroline McCain in a recent post).

The Concept Implicit in Democracy

There is a problem, however, in this application of the concept of ‘conscience.’ In order to function, democracy depends on the idea that the members of a society do not vote purely out of their own self-interest. Rather, it depends on the idea that a majority of individuals are willing to vote out of the interests of their fellow citizens, such that they will seek to elect a government which will make life better for the populace as a whole, not just themselves or their particular community (a fact which may be helpful if we want to understand the breakdown of American politics). This is not, of course, to say that anyone should claim to know without a shadow of a doubt what actually is best for others (though we might all be small totalitarians in this way).  It is just to say that voting in a democracy presumes membership of a polis, such that when one votes one should vote out the interests of the other members of this polis, as well one’s own.

This is entirely consistent with most party platforms, even if not in their explicit rhetoric. Donald Trump’s immigration policies, however xenophobic they might be, are cast in terms of keeping ‘us’ safe and protecting ‘our’ jobs—he isn’t just appealing to self-interest, but to the interest of members of a specific community for their community as a whole. Similarly, Hilary Clinton’s support of the Buffet Rule isn’t cast as benefitting you alone, but as ensuring a more equitable economic system for America as a whole. The same goes for the Libertarians, who campaign on the premise that everyone is better off without government activity, whilst the Green Party platform is explicitly (though possibly not actually) premised upon the idea of equally valuing all across society.

Now, we must be careful here that we do not reduce ‘the interests of fellow citizens’ to ‘the self-interest of a clear majority.’ This is a danger that this could lead to justifying a vote for segregation, for example, if it were the case that a majority of the populace supported some kind of segregation. Similarly, we must be careful not to limit ‘citizens’ here to a bare sort of contractual membership, and so bias our understanding against those who are disenfranchised within the polis. ‘Membership’ and ‘citizenship’  should instead be expanded to cover all those who will be impacted by the outcome of a given election, rather than participation in a more or less exclusive contractual arrangement.

In order to try and avoid this, let us therefore make an appeal to a broad concept of ‘justice,’ understood as that which works for the well-being of all members in a society without neglecting the rights of a given minority. We aren’t trying to say what precisely constitutes ‘justice’ here—we are just using it as shorthand to say that voting out of interest of fellow citizens shouldn’t be reduced to voting for what a majority of citizens want. It is, after all, fairly uncontroversial assumption that a more just society ultimately benefits all of its members (even when this justice goes against the individual self-interest of some of those members), allowing for the seemingly-paradoxical claim that emphasising justice for an oppressed group can very easily be to emphasise the interest of the polis as a whole—even and especially at the cost of privileges enjoyed by those complicit in this oppression.

It should also be explicitly said in this regard that the self-assertion of oppressed communities—at the very least, the right to not have the content of their selves imposed by others—can and should be thought of as a function of justice in and of itself. The sense that voting your conscience in a democracy entails voting in the interests of a polis should not be employed in such a way that it silences the selves of those whose interests have been and are crushed underfoot, either by those in power or those in the majority of that polis, either deliberately or unintentionally.  My hope and belief is that the sense of voting your conscience above can be upheld without grounding an argument for this kind of silencing.

If all this works, we arrive at a point where we can run with the idea that voting our conscience means voting for the candidate who best shares our own principles. But if we wish to utilise a democratic concept of ‘conscience,’ we must broaden it as follows: to vote our conscience means to vote in such a way that our vote is most likely to bring about the outcome which, out of all the possible outcomes, comes closest to approximating justice for the polis as a whole. And this complicates things—because even though we might think that our own principles would indeed be the best for others if they were implemented, it is not necessarily the case that a vote for the candidate who shares our principles is a vote cast in the best interests of others. The two are, of course, closely related: the ways we seek to evaluate which possible outcome is the closest approximation of justice will depend on the principles we hold (indeed, it may even be that one of our principles is that we should vote in the best interests of totters). But there is no necessary entailment between the two: it is very possible to cast a vote on the basis of shared principle which goes against the interest of others.  Indeed, it is possible that voting for the candidate who most shares our principles might be to vote for the outcome which is is furthest from them.

Conflicts of Conscience: Possibility and Choice

Here is our provisional account, then:

‘Voting your conscience means to vote in such a way that your vote is most likely to bring about the outcome which, out of all the possible outcomes, comes closest to approximating justice for the polis as a whole.’

Now, this is not to presume any particular account of what constitutes a harmful or a positive outcome for the polis. The application of this definition does not, as above, presume any particular account of justice; it only seeks to illuminate, again as above, the fact that voting for the candidate whose principles are closest to yours need not be the same as voting for the outcome which comes closest to approximating justice, according to those same principles.

The definition does, however, make a potentially controversial claim, a controversy which rests in the words ‘out of all the possible outcomes.’ These words have been included here on the basis that an outcome with no probability has, by definition, no probability of benefiting anyone (even if the benefits of its success would be considerable). Discovering a means of bringing Mozart back to life, for example, will not benefit anyone—for no other reason than the fact that it will not happen.

This in itself may well be controversial, but it also entails another claim: that voting according to conscience cannot entail voting for something which is an empirical impossibility. To take a very extravagant example, it wouldn’t be in the interest of the polis to vote for a candidate who promised to give everyone a Hollywood mansion—quite apart from whether or not this would actually benefit anyone, it cannot happen. But even on less fantastical matters, we must say the following: conscience cannot compel us to vote for the impossible.

Now, there is an obvious danger here: the appeal to impossibility can easily be used to argue against progress towards possible but difficult or seemingly inconceivable ends. It’s easy to imagine people saying to Ghandi and MLK, to take the easy examples, that their respective goals were impossible/inconceivable—just as it’s easy right now to say that it’s impossible to break the two-party hegemony in the US, impossible to properly erase systematic racism, or impossible to remove corruption from our political systems. This should not be done, especially not by fiat. But neither should we therefore make the opposite mistake of thinking that because something is conceivable, it is therefore possible.

So, we must try to find a middle ground; namely, we must change the way we ask the question. We should not ask ‘is this possible?’ but ‘how would this be possible?’ This is not a question which can be answered with a simple yes or no.  It must instead be answered by evaluating carefully and clearly whether or not there is a series of in-themselves plausible steps which can get us from A to B. This is in fact what MLK and his organising community were able to do—they worked according to a clearly defined strategy to move through attainable goals in order to achieve what others said was unattainable. This is what Campaign Zero is doing right now, in their efforts to end police brutality.

This also entails, however, that our answer must work from the basis of existing realities, not hypothetical or ideal ones. To take the words of the theologian Karl Barth, ethics (and so voting with conscience) ‘is not a matter of what somebody ought to do in a hypothetical case, but of what we ourselves ought to do in our own given situation.’1 We cannot, for example, say ‘if A weren’t the case, then B would be possible,’ without a plausible strategy for changing A.  We cannot say ‘if C were to occur, then B would be possible,’ if C’s occurring is itself equally implausible.  Still less can we say ‘A shouldn’t be the case, so we are going to act as though it isn’t.’  Our reasoning must instead proceed along the lines of ‘given that A is the case, how can B be possible?’ And if we cannot give a clear and plausible answer to this question—if we cannot describe a series of steps from A to B, each of which are themselves clear and plausible, rather than reified wish-fulfilment—then we cannot think of B as possible for the purpose of political conscience.

This is not, of course, to presume the answer to any particular question of possibility: it is just to look at how we can evaluate the likelihood of certain outcomes. But if the inclusion of the words ‘out of all possible outcomes’ is accepted (and if it was accepted at face value, then it should not now be denied because of its consequences), we find ourselves in a place where voting for an outcome whose possibility cannot be reasonably demonstrated cannot properly be a vote of conscience.

To state this positively: to vote your conscience entails voting for a possible outcome.  This needn’t always mean voting for someone to win, of course—I am a staunch supporter of the former third party in Great Britain, for example, and there were many times in the specific context of a British General Election when I felt that garnering 20% of the vote was a good outcome for the polis at large. But it does mean we must weigh up the desirability of a particular outcome against the desirability of gaining a particular percentage of the vote. And we must weigh this in terms of which of these outcomes would be better for the populace at large—in terms of which of the outcomes comes closest to approximating justice (even if both are a long way off), not which of the candidates best reflects our own self-assertion.

To flesh this out, let us imagine a scenario involving Candidate A, Candidate B, and Candidate C. Candidate A is a tyrant, Candidate B is perfect, and Candidate C is somewhere in the middle. In this artificial scenario, A is guaranteed 45% of the vote, B will receive no more that 15% of the vote, and C will receive no less than 40%. The question in voting then becomes: is the outcome in which the tyrant wins with 45% of the vote, beating both Candidate C on 40% and Candidate B on 15%, a better outcome for the populace than the one in which Candidate C wins with 50% of the vote but Candidate B only gets 5%?

Now, this artificial scenario is not necessarily a perfect analogue for our actual situation, and it is not designed to be.  Nor is it designed as if there were only one possible answer. It is only designed to show the kind of reasoning which an appeal to ‘vote your conscience’ demands.

A vote for conscience can go either way, of course—it may well be that conscience declares it better for the perfect candidate to get a higher percentage of the vote, even if it allows the tyrant to win. But conscience must make its choice on the basis of outcomes, not an identification of principle which is blind to consequence. And it must make its choice on the basis of the available possible outcomes—conscience cannot choose on the basis of which outcome would be best if every conceivable outcome were equally possible, nor on the basis of what our moral sensibilities tell us we should do if we lived in a perfect (and so artificial) world.  In between elections we can and should certainly do all we can to try and ensure that we are eventually able to deliberate between more possible options.  All the same, the expansion of choice is almost always beyond the bounds of a single election.

The Voting Veil

Voting for conscience, then, does not mean to vote in the way which most closely resembles our own self-assertion, irrespective of outcome—quite the opposite. It means to choose which of the possible outcomes we think will ultimately be best for others, then vote in such a way as to make that outcome more likely. This has nothing to do with the supposed moral integrity of the available choices: if all the possible options go against our principles, then the choice of conscience is still made on the basis of which of the possible outcomes will be better for the polis. If we do not like the options, and if we feel compromised in having to choose, then so be it;  none of this is about us as individuals, none of this is about our feelings. It’s about the responsibility we have towards each other when we exercise our democratic privilege.

In order to clarify this, we can adapt a famous thought experiment introduced by John Rawls: the veil of ignorance. Here, instead of weighing in on the formation and passing of legislation, we are looking at voting—and we’ll use a bit more sci-fi imagery. Very simply, imagine that after you have cast your vote you enter a newly invented machine. Imagine that once inside, the machine randomly matches your mind with the consciousness of another, and that you must live the rest of your life sharing their consciousness. Or, in order to try and circumvent the possibility that this could serve as a pure motivation for voting in the interest of the many at the great expense of the few, that you find you will share the consciousness of someone who will suffer most should the outcome you vote for come to pass.2 You must share their joys and sorrows. You must share their suffering, their hopes, their pains and their fears.

Imagine, then, that you must share the consequences which your vote had on this other person. Voting your conscience can then be described as follows: voting your conscience means voting in such a way that, if you had to randomly share your consciousness with another person, the outcome for which you vote can be reasonably supposed to either a) increase the likelihood of this person’s wellbeing, or b) have a less destructive effect than the other possible alternatives (whichever is most applicable. This fits the etymology of conscience quite well, after all—literally, ‘to know with others.’

This is not a perfect thought experiment, and again, none of this is supposed to argue for a particular choice in the current election. It is merely an attempt to try and clarify the means by which we go about trying to make our choice. But I hope it still conveys the core point; that the concept of conscience which is currently being employed in our public discourse does not cohere with the democratic process it is being used to try and inform. To vote in accordance with conscience does not mean to vote on the basis of one’s self-estimation or to vote for the candidate whose values are closest to one’s own. It does not mean voting as an act of self-assertion. It means instead to vote out of the interests of everyone who will have to live with the consequences of our vote—it means trying to vote for the benefit of our neighbors, our friends, and our enemies, not as a means of trying to legitimise ourselves.

  1. Bart, Church Dogmatics Volume II:2, p654 ↩︎
  1. Here we must be explicit in saying that one of the many problems of two-party democracy is that it is always possible for those who suffer most in society anyway to be all but unaffected by the results of democratic elections—given the choice between A and B, person D may well find themselves faced with a choice which properly leaves them in the exact same place.  That said, however, the fact that two choices might have equal consequences for those who suffer most does not mean that the two choices are necessarily equally evil, which would be an overly reductive account of political consequence.  ↩︎
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